A Finnish Challenges and excitement in Learning Chinese: Sara Jaaksola

I’m Sara Jaaksola and I’ve been learning Chinese for five years. I’ve always been interested in everything Chinese, including the language and that’s why I moved to China to pursue my dreams. I’m a student at Sun Yat-Sen University in Guangzhou, studying Chinese language and specializing in Teaching Chinese.

Besides learning Chinese I write a blog Living a Dream in China ( and have three cats. I also enjoy reading, creative writing, bicycling and traveling. One of my dreams is to visit every province in China.

How long have you been studying Chinese? In what context and what is your purpose of learning this language?
I’ve been learning Chinese for five years now, from which three and a half in China. Back in Finland I took Chinese course at my university, having classes once or twice per week. In March 2010 I started as an exchange student at Guangzhou University, learning Chinese half a day, five days per week. When I decided to study Chinese as my major, I changed to Sun Yat-Sen University from where I’m graduating this December.

I learn Chinese because it’s a fascinating language and allows me to know this huge country a lot better. Immersing to Chinese culture would be much more difficult without having knowledge of Chinese. I also feel like that with Chinese I’ve found my thing and something I’m actually good at.

Do you have a certain philosophy for how you approach learning Chinese? Do you have any future plans about it?
I don’t have any special philosophy, but learning Chinese should be both fun and useful. I’ve always taken classes so my learning has been quite structured, I probably wouldn’t have been able to make this progress without taking classes.

At the moment my Chinese learning is mostly tied with my thesis writing, which will be completely in Chinese. While reading researches and writing, I’m also training my Chinese and learning new words, expressions and grammar. After graduation I want to improve my Chinese while working, I don’t want to get back to textbooks, but I should read more novels in Chinese.

Next year I’ll be applying for a scholarship and if I’m lucky I will start my master’s in Teaching Chinese as a Second Language in September. It’s not about studying Chinese anymore, but studying other things in Chinese, in this case how to teach others this amazing language.

What is so enjoyable about studying Chinese?
It’s something totally different from European languages, it offers an interesting challenge. It feels great to be able to read Chinese characters, something that felt so difficult five years ago. Chinese also has it’s on logic, sometimes the words are just so logical! Last week I was looking up the word for icing sugar and found out it’s 糖粉 so literally sugar powder, so easy to remember! Or the classic example how 女 woman and 子 son together means 好 good.

What mistakes do you see other language learners make? What should people NOT do when studying Chinese?
A lot of people start learning spoken Chinese, but are afraid of the characters. It is possible to get up to small talk level in Chinese without being able to read or write, but progressing from intermediate onwards is much harder. All the learning material in that point will be in characters only. I would recommend everyone to learn to read as well and type with a computer, also to learn the basic rules of hand writing, as all of this will make your studying easier, not harder.

Remembering words is much easier if you know characters. How do you learn the word for left and right in Chinese? 

Just take a look at the word right 右, it has a mouth (口) under a hand (手). As most of us eat with our right hand, then of course 右 is right! If you don’t know the characters how do you make a mnemonic for the pronunciation yòu?

My advice it, don’t be afraid of the characters. It’s just a writing system, nothing more intimidating. Learning it of course needs a lot of work, but if you truly want to master Chinese, there are no shortcuts. Luckily nowadays we have lots of useful books, apps, softwares and methods to study characters.

Which is your favourite Chinese character? Why?

I don’t really have a favorite Chinese character at the moment. I used to like 是 a lot when I was starting out as I was able to write it well with a pen. Writing 事 by hand is fun too, like all those horizontal lines. I have taken a short course in ancient characters at my university and would love to study calligraphy. Perhaps I’m going to find my new favorite character soon.

Which is one most embarrassing moment along your learning journey you have ever encountered?

It’s embarrassing when someone doesn’t understand you at all. At this level most of the Chinese I meet understand my accent quite well. My pronunciation is far from perfect, lots of mistakes and terrible tones, but still it’s usually understandable. But once in a while I meet a local Chinese who doesn’t seem to understand a word that comes out of my mouth. It feels embarrassing as I feel I have to go back to the basics and speak real slowly and clearly in order to communicate with this person.

For HSK exams, where did you get your motivation? At which level is the most difficult?
For me HSK exams have been mainly to check my level and have some kind of proof that I’m making progress. When starting out level 6 felt so hard, almost impossible to pass. Last May when I finally did the HSK6, it was easier than I thought, I got 238 points out of 300, just 180 would have been enough to pass.

Can you name some of your favourite online resources (please list the urls).
My ultimate favorite blog about learning Chinese is I have huge admiration for the admin, Olle, as his Chinese is much better than mine, he is studying a master’s degree that I want to start next year. As we both want to be Chinese teachers, I think we have a lot in common. When I feel lack of motivation I’ll always find some from his blog.

What is your advice/tip for a non-Chinese to learn Chinese?
Get started and don’t give up! Remember the reason why you want to study Chinese and don’t forget it during your journey. Have clear goals that you want to achieve and track your progress. Some parts of the language will come easier after time, pronunciation and speaking is one of them. At intermediate level you will feel stuck, don’t worry, we all go through that phase. Just keep on going and you will do great!

What kind of materials or resources you use is not important, the right ones can help you a lot, but what’s the most important piece of the puzzle is you. Practice makes if not perfect, then better than before! 加油! Add Oil!

We would like to Thank Sara for her contribution to this interview. You may read on in her blog about her journey in having a baby in China :)

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